Another month, another set of negative headlines about life for businesses down in the epicentre of Folkestone’s ongoing regeneration, the Creative Quarter.
There was disappointment earlier in March when it emerged the team behind the planned restaurant at the former Earl Grey pub, Max’s House, were pulling out. Reported in the local press as a ‘major setback’, it seems the truth may be rather more banal: that those behind the venture were simply a little too keen to trumpet the news of their plans, Facebook page and all, before pen had even been put to paper on the deal.
I imagine the Creative Foundation, the body behind the multimillion-pound regeneration of Folkestone’s old town, would have preferred the potential tenants to have kept a lower profile and a lid on their ambitious plans until the deal was actually done.
The fact the site in the Old High Street, which has been renovated to a high standard by Thanet-based contractors DJ Ellis, has not now opened as a bar and restaurant is of course a real shame for everyone associated with the area – 0ther businesses in the neighbourhood are keen to create a critical mass of venues and shops to draw in the punters – but it still seems there are some who are worryingly keen to talk the area down.
Quoted by the Folkestone Herald in the wake of the news that Max’s House would not be opening its doors after all, the owner of now-closed Old High Street shop Fairy Sensations blamed a lack of passing trade for the decision to shut her doors for good in favour of running an online-only operation.
It’s obviously a shame when any business struggles for whatever reason, but I believe it is misleading to paint the woes of individual businesses as symptoms of wider problems with the Creative Quarter and its long-term role in the regeneration of Folkestone. Can any specialist business really be sure of surviving in a bricks-and-mortar shop in the internet age, when competitors trading exclusively online enjoy such dramatically-lower overheads?
Personally I find the suggestion that “passing trade is non-existent” in the Old High Street to be frankly ludicrous. There are plenty of businesses thriving in the Creative Quarter, and when I pass through each day I always see people walking in the Old High Street, browsing the shop windows and stopping off in the cafes for a drink and a bite to eat.
Perhaps those whose ventures struggle in the Creative Quarter should question whether they really had a viable proposition on their hands rather than simply seeking to blame the location for their troubles?
It’s also worth remembering just how much investment is being poured into the Creative Quarter during this time of financial uncertainty. Investment which is supporting local jobs, improving a once run-down neighbourhood and creating new infrastructure which will already be in place once the recovery comes and growth returns to the economy, both locally and nationally.
Last month I obtained information from the Creative Foundation about its investment in regeneration in the Creative Quarter during 2011. In total it is expected that £2.85 million will be spent on projects completed in the Creative Quarter this year alone, creating quality accommodation and workplaces to be offered at competitive rents.
A spokesman for the Creative Foundation told me: “The purchase of all buildings has been funded by The Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, which also pays for the rebuilding and refurbishment work that is taking place.
“Once completed, the buildings pass into the control of the Creative Foundation on a 125 year lease, an arrangement that is designed to provide a sustainable model that will encourage a stable environment for creative businesses to grow and flourish over time.
“You will appreciate that given that there are no public funds involved in any of these projects the individual contracts with builders and sub-contractors are subject to confidentiality. It is the Creative Foundation’s policy to invite competitive tenders for each project from a range of contractors within East Kent.”
I think that last sentence is very important. I asked the Foundation to indicate specifically where the architects and contractors involved in each of the major refurbishment projects currently underway in the Creative Quarter are based.
At the Brewery Tap in Tontine Street, a former public house now being converted into a bar/restaurant with office and living space above, the architects are Pringle Richards Sharratt of London and the contractors are DJ Ellis of Thanet. At the Earl Grey in the Old High Street the architects are CDP of Canterbury and the contractors are DJ Ellis of Thanet.
Down on South Street at Kathmandu, a former club being renovated as a bar/restaurant with studios and living accommodation above, it’s an all Folkestone job, with architects Godden Allen Lawn and contractors Jenner Construction. Two other projects in the Old High Street are also entirely in the hands of architects and contractors from Folkestone and Thanet.
This investment in the future of our town, which does not involve a single penny from the public purse, is not only transforming a large number of unoccupied and derelict buildings but also keeping local people in work during a downturn which has left many in areas like Folkestone and Thanet, especially those working in construction and associated trades, struggling to find and hold down a steady wage.
It’s easy to come up with negative headlines about delayed projects – Max Palmer has, after all, said he still hopes to open at the Earl Grey in future – and specialised businesses who have struggled to find a market for their products. But none of this should obscure the fact progress is being made in the Creative Quarter every single day, that the reason the area around the Old High Street resembles a building site is because it is.
Millions of pounds of private investment in a deprived area of Folkestone? Young men and women kept in work by projects completed with the use of firms from East Kent? The creation of high-quality buildings to house new enterprises and those who come to our town to establish them? If an increasingly-vocal minority in Folkestone still want to believe this is evidence of failure, please could they tell us what they would do instead?